Jacqueline Woodson, who has been writing and publishing for more than 25 years, is best known as a children’s and young adult author, and she’s won some of the top awards in the field. Among her 18 titles are “Brown Girl Dreaming,” a memoir in verse that won a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature; as well as the novels “Miracle’s Boys,” which won a Coretta Scott King Award, and “After Tupac and D Foster,” winner of a Newbery Honor Medal.
But Woodson’s new book, “Another Brooklyn” (Amistad, 175 pp., $22.99), has a different audience in mind: adult readers. At least that’s how her publisher is marketing this spare, lyrical novel about a young African-American girl’s youth in 1970s Bushwick, the working-class Brooklyn neighborhood abutting Queens that in recent years has become the “hipster” successor to Williamsburg. “Another Brooklyn” is narrated by August, who has come to New York City from Tennessee with her father and brother; her mother — mysteriously — is absent. In Bushwick she makes friends with Sylvia, Angela and Gigi, and together the four girls navigate the shoals of adolescence and their changing world.
Woodson, 53, grew up in Bushwick and drew on her own childhood memories in writing the novel. She attended Adelphi University as an undergraduate, and today lives in Park Slope with her family. She spoke to Newsday via Skype from the south of France, where she was on vacation.
The dedication of “Another Brooklyn” reads “For Bushwick (1970-1990).” Why dedicate the novel to a neighborhood?
I wanted to place the book in that time and I also wanted to pay homage to that time when Bushwick existed in a different way for a different group of people. People look at Bushwick now and they think of this hipster neighborhood that was “discovered.” It had been there for a lot of people for a long time, and I didn’t want that history to get erased.
Many people think of the 1970s and ’80s as the “bad years” in New York City.
You know, that is totally about the gaze — who is doing the looking, and where they are in the narrative. I never saw the place that I called home as a dangerous place. I never felt unsafe walking through the streets of black neighborhoods — I’m black. It was always more dangerous for me going someplace like Ridgewood [in Queens], which was white, where the message was, you will get beaten up or killed there. It’s very easy for people to say something is one way or the other without looking at the different layers to a place. New York has always been this very layered place.
After so many books for young people, what made you write a novel for adults?
I knew that I was going to write a book that stretched the boundaries of time and place and memory in a way that I didn’t think I could do in a book for younger people. When you’re writing for young people you stay within a certain parameter of time — maybe it’s a year, maybe it’s a school year, maybe it’s a weekend, maybe it’s a day. Here, in “Another Brooklyn,” I go back and forth and play with time.
As August looks back on her childhood, she uses a refrain: “This is memory.” What does that mean to you?
So much of the book is about the girls not having control over different things — their bodies, their careers, the way they’re able to walk the street. And what August is saying is, “This is memory, this is mine. You can question it all you want but this is what I own.”
Music plays such a central role in the narrative. August mentions songs that really evoke the era, such as Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” and The Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat.”
When you’re young there is a soundtrack to your life, and everything is telling a story — the books you’re reading, the music you’re listening to, the advertisements you’re seeing, the magazines you’re looking at. All of it is helping define who you’re becoming. When I was working on “Another Brooklyn” I listened to a lot of music to help get me back into that place and time.
You’ve written both poetry and prose, and your bring a poetic feeling to the language in “Another Brooklyn.”
Language really matters. It’s one thing to tell a story; it’s another to care deeply about the way the words are working together. I want people to really take their time reading it. When someone says to me, “I read that book in a day,” I’m like, “It took me three years to write. Go back and read it again [laughs].”